Neck Positioning and Strength Training: Part 1

By Chris Carlsen

Neck Positioning and Strength Training

Properly positioning the neck while exercising has engendered great discussion over the last couple of years. Issues pertaining to whether you should “pack” or extend the neck have been debated in the strength and conditioning field. But before discussing proper neck positioning during movement, you must initially learn to master positioning statically.

The position of your neck is very important. The neck itself supports the head and is part of the cervical spine. Its proper positioning links the thoracic spine and lumbar spine, which allows for efficient moving, breathing mechanics (air passage ways and diaphragm positioning) and strength (especially that of the core). It follows that when the head is aligned properly, a chain reaction occurs throughout the rest of the body that puts you in the most biomechanically advantageous position. 

Teaching this position can be challenging. For starters, you can’t see your head when you exercise and if you attempt to look in the mirror, you risk losing proper neck alignment.  So you must rely on cues and feeling to become more consistent with proper neck positioning.

Vision is ocular, meaning we gaze with our eyes. Yet most people maintain the bad habit of looking with their chin. Leading with the chin can cause hyperextension of the lower back and loss of rhythm between the hips and thoracic spine. To correct this, the focus should be on keeping the eyes on the horizon. As you will see when I discuss dynamic neck movement, it is acceptable to have slight extension and flexion in the neck during movement; it’s just that it’s initiated by our breath and by the agonist muscle groups. This will result in a smooth movement from extension to flexion.

Neutral position is important because it teaches a balance in tension of all the supporting muscles. It also gives an indication of what is happening during dynamic movements and everyday activities. A balance is tension will leave the muscles at a neutral resting length (good posture). Therefore if someone has difficulty neutralizing their neck, then they must have a faulty movement pattern dynamically.  Click here to read more about tension and resting length of a muscle.

First you must master the basics. You can learn static neutral alignment by putting your back against a wall with your feet a foot from the wall. You should then be able to obtain 3 points of contact with the wall; glutes, shoulder blades and head. To make sure you are doing it correctly, make a fist and try to slide it behind the small of your lower back; if your fist goes through to the other side of your back, you have a lordotic curve (with a chin tilted up to compensate and touch the wall). If your shoulders and head are pulled off the wall, it results in a forward posture and rounded shoulders.

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Once successful, I will take the student off the wall and see if they can replicate the movement holding a stick behind their back and keeping the three points of contact above. One hand will be holding the stick where your shirt tag is (like when stretching ones biceps) and the other will be on the base of your lower back. I then take the stick away and try to get them to feel the neutral position by using my hands. I show them a picture of their chin position (packed) on the wall and tell them to keep this position while they push their head back into my hands. This creates a balance in tension between the neck flexors and extensors and hopefully creates a feeling that they can connect and reciprocate upon progressions. I myself can feel the connection with the rest of my body when the head is positioned properly. These cues have increased my awareness of neutral neck and I don’t need to constantly ask someone to check my positioning (especially in the side plank). 

You can now progress in this order: wall plank, regular plank, goblet walks and side planks.  Subscribe to my website to see how I break down the plank in its entirety.